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Two years after Woodside closure, the plan for Vermont's juvenile offenders remains unclear

The outside of the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center.
Liam Elder-Connors
VPR File

Vermont’s only juvenile detention center shut down in the fall of 2020. Since then, four minors have been detained in adult jails throughout Vermont, according to state officials.

Most recently, a 15-year-old girl from Bennington was locked up at Vermont’s only women’s prison, and then released about two weeks later amid concerns from child advocates.

But it remains unclear what the long-term plan for Vermont’s juvenile offenders is, and some advocates don’t think they should be locked up at all.

That’s according to recent reporting from Tiffany Tan, who’s been following the story for VT Digger. VPR’s Grace Benninghoff caught up with Tan to get the key takeaways. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Grace Benninghoff: Let's start by walking through how we got here. I understand Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex closed down in 2020. Why did the state ultimately shutter that facility?

A woman poses for the camera.
Tiffany Tan

Tiffany Tan: Well, there were several reasons, according to my reporting and the reporting of colleagues. In 2019, there was a federal lawsuits that allege that Woodside staff excessively used restraints against the children being held at a facility.

More from VPR: Lawsuit, Regulatory Reports Allege 'Dangerous' Restraints Of Children At Woodside

Officials also said that the facility's atmosphere was not conducive to the rehabilitation of children. And the number of juveniles being held there was dwindling. At times, officials said the facility set empty, yet the state was actually spending about $6 million per year to run it.

Since that happened, the state's been sending younger offenders to Sununu Youth Services Center in New Hampshire. But that facility has limited space, and it's also seen its own controversies. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Local media there have reported that the center has been investigated over complaints that the staff physically and sexually abused teens in their care. And since then, 10 former workers at the center and at its associated youth detention services unit have been indicted. And there were also reports of about 460 former juvenile residents there who sued the state of New Hampshire with allegations that spanned the 1960s up to 2018. So since then, the New Hampshire Legislature ordered the Sununu Center to close in March 2023. I actually asked the commissioner for the Vermont Department for Children and Families, Sean Brown, about these accusations and how Vermont chose to contract with that facility in New Hampshire. And he said that DCF is aware of the accusations against the center, but that DCF staffers visited and evaluated the facility before Vermont decided to enter into a contract with it.

Something you mentioned in your article is that there are potential dangers of detaining juveniles and adult facilities. Can you walk us through some of those concerns?

On this topic, I got a lot of very helpful information from the Vera Institute of Justice, which is a New York-based national research and policy group. And the institute said that jails and prison have been found to be unsafe places for children — that children detained in adult facilities face the highest rates of sexual violence among people who are incarcerated.

On top of that, they have also seen that juveniles have exhibited higher suicide rates. And this is in connection with the fact that when they're in adult jails or prisons, they're often placed in their own cells away from adults. But the isolation can also lead to anxiety, paranoia and the worsening of any mental health disorders that might already be there.

Do juveniles who have spent time in adult jails typically reoffend?

I was told that the studies have shown that that juveniles placed in adult facilities have shown higher rates of reoffending in the years after they're released.

After Woodside closed, the state began preparing to open a juvenile boys detention center in Newbury at a former bed and breakfast, but you reported that the project is stuck in limbo. Can you break down how we got here, and where things stand with that project now?

Late last year, the Newbury Development Review Board denied the project a conditional use permit to set up the facility there. Among the reasons that the Board gave was that town resources wouldn't be able to meet the facility's expected need for emergency centers, such as police, fire and ambulance response.

After that, the Agency of Human Services, under which DCF falls under, along with the facility's intended operator, they appealed the decision in Vermont Superior Court. And as of last week when I checked, the case is still being heard.

In the meantime, the state hasn't really mentioned any plans for a juvenile girls detention facility. What's the latest on that?

I asked DCF Commissioner Sean brown about this. And he said that his department will be working with the Vermont Department of Corrections this summer to identify an appropriate location. And he said that based on the timeline given to them by the Legislature, that they have to submit a report on this by December of this year.

While all of this is happening, there are some people who don't think youth offenders should be detained at all. What kind of rehabilitation alternatives to advocates instead support?

Going back to my conversation with the Vera Institute of Justice, they believe that programs called community-based solutions have actually been found to be more effective in driving down the rate of reoffending among juveniles. They said that these programs, which are undertaken while the juvenile is living in their community either with relatives or with a foster family, that they are actually more helpful when we're looking at rehabilitation.

So these programs include family therapy for the juvenile and their parents, behavioral therapy to address any mental health issues, as well as mentorship with an adult who has gone through similar life experiences and challenges. There's also a similar program called diversion, in which a juvenile admits responsibility for their actions and meets with a local board of community volunteers to complete a contract designed to repair the harm done to the victim, as well as the community.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with Grace Benninghoff @gbenninghoff1.

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